The lecturer's tale that is stranger than fiction

7th November 2014 at 00:00
When Stephen Grant wrote a novel set in a strike-bound further education college, he got a bigger reaction than he bargained for

One day, philosophy teacher Tom Phelps' life was turned upside down. His employer, a further education college in London, announced plans to make dozens of staff redundant. As the branch secretary for his union, Phelps' life came to be dominated by the increasingly acrimonious struggle against the college's management, which eventually culminated in an extended series of strikes.

Phelps, however, doesn't exist. He is the protagonist in A Moment More Sublime, the debut novel by Stephen Grant. As it happens, Grant (pictured, right) also taught philosophy. He worked at Richmond upon Thames College, in south-west London. He even, it turns out, was the branch secretary for the University and College Union (UCU) and played a key role in its prolonged industrial dispute with the college, which resulted in strike action.

But this is as far as the parallels go, according to Grant, who is adamant that the novel's characters bear no resemblance to colleagues, past or present.

For Grant's real-life employer, however, it appears that the line between fact and fiction is too thin. When Grant told his managers in late August that his novel was to be released by US publisher Upper West Side Philosophers, they asked to see a copy. Shortly afterwards, the college requested that the book be withdrawn from sale. Disciplinary proceedings against Grant for alleged breach of contract were started. Last month he quit his job, citing the impact the investigation was having on his health.

"It was enormously stressful," he says. "It was really intimidating. I felt the college's reaction was completely over the top."

When contacted by TES, a college spokeswoman declined to elaborate on the grounds for starting disciplinary proceedings, stating that it was "an internal matter and bound by confidentiality".

Grant is immovable in his insistence that he did not use the medium of fiction to fire a broadside at the college.

"I was aware at the time [of writing] that I didn't want to take real people, slightly change them and make them into villains," he says. "[The characters] are wholly unlike any characters who have ever worked at [Richmond] college, to my knowledge anyway. I don't think anyone reading the book would recognise them.

"I think that fails to attribute enough sophistication to ordinary readers of fiction.No one picks up a work of fiction and says that this was a reliable account of individuals or events. There is an issue of freedom of expression here."

Novel problem

Michael Eskin, co-founder of Upper West Side Philosophers, describes Grant's treatment by the college over the novel as "unheard of in a Western democracy".

"A writer of fiction should not have to fear persecution and prosecution from his employer in London in 2014," he says. "That Richmond upon Thames College had the additional temerity of attempting to pressure us, Stephen Grant's US publisher, to `cease sales' of the novel and `remove it from any advertisement' is not only preposterous in itself, but bespeaks a blatant overstepping of institutional and, potentially, legal boundaries."

UCU was also quick to stand up for the rights of its former representative. "Colleges have provided the backdrop for some fantastic novels over the years," a spokesman says (see panel, left). "Many members, in jest or exasperation, have said they should write a book about their experiences, although if someone does, that should not lead to disciplinary action. Although I haven't yet read the book, some colleges certainly might learn something if they listened to their staff."

The management strategies used by the fictional Sandford officials in Grant's book, it is safe to say, are not likely to elicit much sympathy from the reader. Minutes of governors' meetings discussing job losses mysteriously disappear; hundreds of students are mistakenly enrolled on unfunded courses. "I have made this college what it is, and I deserve every penny of the money I earn!" bellows principal Dickie Kilman when a union official suggests he takes a pay cut alongside his staff.

The tense stand-offs in the novel, which climax with a union representative being assaulted by a security guard, are entirely the product of Grant's imagination, he insists.

"The real negotiations aren't really like that," he says. "They're much, much duller. I've been to a lot of these meetings and I've never seen someone get up and walk out."

But, perhaps surprisingly given the way his employment ended, Grant describes Richmond college's management sympathetically, even when recalling its skirmishes with the union over redundancies and changes to staff pay.

"There was a lot of funding pressure," he says. "The college is a difficult building to run because it's quite old. I can understand, from their perspective, that they did need to make changes. But I think we often felt that it seemed to be [members of] lecturing staff and support staff who bore the brunt of the pain."

And having a published novelist on the staff could have been a string to the college's bow, Grant adds. "My argument was that there is a way to look at this very, very positively: it's good to have a member of staff who writes novels. Management just didn't see it that way."

Reality check

The FE sector may seem like an unlikely setting for dramatic fiction, but A Moment More Sublime is by no means the first work of literature to be set in a college.

Tom Sharpe's Wilt series of cult comedy novels, first published in 1976, detail the protagonist's shenanigans at the fictional Fenland College of Arts and Technology and include an episode where he accidentally drops a sex doll into a hole dug for the foundations of a new college building.

The Further Education of Mike Carter by Richard Ayres, a former trades union representative and vice-principal of Newcastle-under-Lyme College, was released in 2012. It charts the fall from grace of its central character, described as "the leader of the pack, scourge of college management, seducer of students, colleagues and wives of colleagues".

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